Perspective - Four Things Groups Want that Leaders Can't Give — and One They Can

I stumbled upon Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s blog post at and I think it is very insightful. She believes that groups tend to have impossible expectations for senior leaders: crystal clear expectations, certainty about the future, empowerment means saying “yes” all the time, and knowing in advance things they could only learn at the end of a project (my favorite is the universal Navy crew lament in post overhaul reviews  that they should have been trained for overhaul better at the outset). Kanter notes that the one thing a leader can provide is “a sympathetic ear and frequent communication. Knowing that leaders care about their success can help people let go of the rest.”

I am not going to repeat the post here (read it yourself). My experience bears out the validity of Kantor’s points. Like Einstein noted, we often cannot solve problems at the same level of understanding we had when we first proposed them. I often assign teams to work on problems I have very little idea of how to solve or at the very best have confidence that the team can produce a better approach than I could on my own. This is why it is important to meet frequently with teams when they are working on complex problems to you can learn what they have learned and possibly adjust your expectations accordingly. You might also be able to offer insight or relevant experience that will help the team.

Besides providing a sympathetic ear, one of the comments to the post noted that leaders can create a powerful organizational culture based on trust and innovation. I think there main focus is not on themselves, but on Company and its stakeholders to deliver their best and honestly, for everyone's betterment.

The article has some links to other really good material, like the Warren Bennis and Noel Tichy HBR article, “Making Judgment Calls,” from the October edition of the magazine (it is available as a reprint). From their research into the complex phenomenon of leadership judgment, the authors also found that most important judgment calls reside in one of three domains: people, strategy, and crisis. Understanding the essence of leadership judgment is crucial. A leader’s calls determine an organization’s success or failure and deliver the verdict on his or her career. The first phase of the judgment process is preparation—identifying and framing the issue that demands a decision and aligning and mobilizing key stakeholders. Second is the call itself. And third is acting on the call, learning and adjusting along the way.

There is also a reference in Kantor’s blog post to another blog about Peter Drucker’s statement that “There is no such thing as leadership.” He defended this by claiming it couldn’t be defined. He stressed that leaders were only labeled as such because they had followers. “At best, leadership may be a dimension of management,” he said, “and leaders could be identified because their actions were predictable, or perhaps trustworthy.” A few excepts from the blog post

In various recent books and articles, Drucker defined management as “making knowledge effective.” Its tasks involve “specific purpose and mission, making work productive and the worker achieving, and managing social impacts and social responsibilities” (p. 40) . Management “is not the application of common sense, or leadership, let alone financial manipulation,” (p. 17), yet it will “increasingly be concerned as much with the expression of basic beliefs and values as with the accomplishment of measurable results” (p. 36). Greenleaf said it was “the ability to state a goal and reach it, through the efforts of other people, and satisfy those whose judgment one respects, under conditions of stress” (p. 10). Louis Allen, adapting from Henri Fayol earlier in the 20th century, defined management simply as “planning, organizing, leading and controlling.”

Most “leaders,” when they get into trouble, are found to have used power inappropriately and therefore become toxic.  Whenever power is exercised, it is because a “power differential” exists. There is a difference in power between two individuals and the stronger controls the weaker. When there is no power differential (it is zero or at parity), or as this differential approaches zero or parity, creating a result requires motivating or persuading the other with something besides power.

Drucker likened knowledge workers in business to volunteers because they were primarily motivated to work by nearly everything but compensation. Whether an elegant programming solution, a healed and happy patient, or an elegant engineering design, knowledge workers are motivated to perform because they are interested in or satisfied by their labors. They feel they are making a contribution. If they are not, they will move to another company. If a volunteer isn’t motivated, she will stop serving at the homeless shelter.

...when Drucker says leaders are only defined by the presence of followers, I believe he means that these followers first exist – and that they are absolutely free from all constraints in choosing to follow. Power is absent, and the decision to follow creates the ultimate democracy.

Drucker conceded that being predictable or trustworthy might also be an element of leadership. It became clear that these were synonymous. Followers will trust a leader because her actions are predictable. We followers trust that this is what you the leader will do, because you are predictable, and we trust your predictability. To be predictable is to be consistent in our actions and reactions. Our expectations never fail to be fulfilled, even when the news is bad

The ultimate powerless situation results from crisis, and to a lesser extent, situations of risk or uncertainty. Small wonder that this is where we often see leaders fail or succeed. The context of powerlessness is fear, risk, vulnerability, responsibility without commensurate authority, and despair. The responses, respectively, are courage (fear), informed confidence (risk), capacity (vulnerability), visioning and communicating (no authority), and hope and optimism (despair). When other character traits like humility, being “little”, predictability, trust, honesty and grace are added, it becomes clear that only managers of character dare lead. Grace in managers is an especially peculiar phenomenon: it requires treating people better than they deserve, esteeming others as more than myself, making strengths productive and weaknesses irrelevant in followers, and forgiving. It is a counter-intuitive gift and therefore usually unexpected.

For Further Reading

Making Judgment Calls, Warren Bennis and Noel Tichy,